From the back cover:
Sometimes even gods need help. In Galactic Pot-Healer that god is an alien creature known as the Glimmung, which looks alternately like a flaming wheel, a teenage girl, and a swirling mass of ocean life. In order to raise a sunken city, he summons beings from across the galaxy to Plowman’s Planet. Joe Fernwright is one of those summoned, needed for his skills at pot-healing — repairing broken ceramics. But from the moment Joe arrives on Plowman’s Planet, things start to go awry. Is the Glimmung good or evil? Are Joe and his friends helping to save Plowman’s Planet or destroy it?
Galactic Pot-Healer is a strange novel. From what I understand of Philip K. Dick that is not an unusual way to feel about his writing, but the novel struck me in this way more than I had anticipated — primarily because the summary above makes the story sound a lot more straightforward than it really is. The narrative, while following along the general path laid out above, plays out in a much different way than the description suggests.
Our protagonist, Joe Fernwright, lives in a dystopic future Earth, where everything is plastic, life is stagnant, and the government intrusively monitors its people’s speech, actions, and even thoughts in order to keep them in a constant state of repression. Joe finds fulfillment in his abilities as a pot-healer, but with ceramics being so scarce and everything new consisting of plastic, his life is spent in a cubicle where his talents and life are wasted.
The tone of the novel is more satirical than the dystopic aspects suggest, with a lot of dry humour used throughout. Following in this manner, a lot of information and new concepts are presented to the reader that they aren’t given a lot of time or exposition to understand. I realized quickly, especially once Joe left Earth, that I would have to “just go with it” for a lot of what I was being told. Interplanetary travel and a larger galactic community is quite apparent, for example, but it treats this as common knowledge, never making it the focal point of the story. A character being a quasi-arachnid or an “octopoid” seems to make no more difference to Joe than if it was simply someone from a different country.
That isn’t to say that things were happening for no reason, but what seemed to me mattered more were the implications of what was being introduced, rather than a world-building explanation of it. I would go into greater detail about the directions things develop, but I feel that would take away from the surreal experience of reading it. I cannot emphasize enough that there are typical narrative paths I envisioned this story following, but it did not go that way at all. Just when I was wrapping my head around a new variable introduced something new and stranger would rear its head.
The novel is ultimately philosophical, more interested in the questions that it raises than giving you a clear answer. Notions of personal fulfillment, challenging fate, and healing are strongly focused on, with the harder science fiction aspects situated as more background details. It’s amusing to me that this novel came out in 1969, because it many ways it feels like it is hearkening back to that era of science fiction to benefit the satirical aspects, rather than being an actual product of its time.
While it is not counted among the highest calibre fiction produced by Philip K. Dick, Galactic Pot-Healer is an interesting science fiction novel nonetheless. It didn’t offer anything mind-blowing, but asked some interesting philosophical questions to consider if you give it a chance. Upon reflection there’s a lot I’ve realized about that novel that is quite bittersweet and clever as well, where at first I was a little stupefied by the ending. The dry humour I mentioned also holds up fairly well, which helped endear me to the story more despite its strangeness. I would recommend it to anyone looking for science fiction that’s a little more obscure and on the strange side.